Ash

IT’S NOT LOOKING good for our  Ash trees. The fungus, Chalara fraxinea, that has killed around 90% of Ash trees in Denmark and in other parts of Europe has spread here, with cases reported from several locations in Yorkshire. It’s hard to think of this familiar view from my studio without those two tall Ashes on the edge of the wood, the one on the right thickly covered in ivy. As I type this two Magpies have flown into its top branches.

But two large Ashes at the entrance to the woods have blown down since we moved here in the 1980s and a third was felled before it got a chance to fall on the newly built houses but the wood doesn’t take long to rejuvenate itself and fill in the gaps.

Ash saplings soon colonised a rock fall in the old quarry in the wood; they prefer well drained, even rubbly soils, for example the steep little roadside embankment leading to the bridge over the railway at the bottom of Quarry Hill.

On damper ground by the stream that runs through the wood, Crack Willows are the dominant tree although a level meadow area, long neglected, has been transformed to Alder woodland in the few decades that we’ve been here. Horse riders used to break into a canter on this short stretch of open level ground but now what’s left of what was once a conspicuous path has almost disappeared in the thicket of new trees.

It’s hard to imagine the West Yorkshire countryside without Ash trees – they grow like weeds in the right habitat, and their wavy limbs are a wayward contrast to the dominant sturdy but rather dour Sessile Oak. I feel that they’ve got a central role in north country folklore because of their place in Viking mythology.

My guess would be that if they go Sycamores would move in to replace them in most situations. Sycamores have similar ‘helicopter’ seeds; samara is the exotic sounding botanical name for this kind of winged nut. Perhaps in more open areas Silver Birch would take the place of Ash as a coloniser.

Old Rugged Cross

TODAY RICK, a freelance scenic painter, is putting the finishing touches to the Saxon Cross exhibit in the new Wakefield Museum. The last time that you’d have seen a man painting this cross in Wakefield would have been over a thousand years ago.

In this reconstruction what remains of the shaft of the original, covered in plastic sheeting in my drawing (and no, Rick’s not going to paint that bit!), is in a plain Anglo Saxon knotted tendril design, with no birds, beasts or warriors popping out from the tracery. It might date from any time from the 800s to just before the Norman conquest.

Saxon crosses were painted and, judging from surviving artwork of the period, such as The Lindisfarne Gospels, they would have used the brightest colours available. We’re used to seeing monuments of such antiquity in worn, mellow stone so this reconstruction reminds us that, in a world where these brighter colours were the exception, this was intended to be a focus of attention – like the sign of a MacDonald’s restaurant today.

When this cross was erected in Wakefield’s market place there might have been a Saxon Church in Wakefield but I suspect that it stood alone as a focus of community life and worship. Paulinus, the Roman missionary who became the first Bishop of York, is said to have preached to the pagan Anglo Saxons at Dewsbury in 627 A.D. The last pagan king in Englad, Penda of Mercia, had been defeated and killed in 655 at the Battle of Winwaed, which was possibly alongside the River Went at Ackworth.

The cross was still standing in 1546 but then disappeared until 1861 when Edmund Waterton, son of the naturalist Charles, rescued it from the demolition of an old butcher’s shop, which stood on the site of Unity Hall, Westgate. It had been used as a doorstep.

Rick painted jungly scenic backdrops for the 1990s revamp of the (Charles) Waterton exhibit Wakefield Museum and he’s painted a fresh jungle backdrop for the new exhibit here in the Museum’s new quarters at Wakefield One. My acrylic on canvas Waterton’s World mural, painted for the 1980s Waterton gallery at the Museum is now in the collection of the Hepworth art gallery. As well as museum work Rick, who lives in Wensleydale, has worked as a scenic artist on numerous Yorkshire Television and Granada series such as Emmerdale and Heartbeat.

As I sketched him, Rick worked mainly with a brush, as his Anglo Saxon predecessors would, but occasionally, to build up a transparent shadow, he’d add a touch of airbrushing.

I’m sure that many visitors will, at a glance, assume that the reconstructed head and base of the cross are three dimensional. The touch of trompe d’oeil that impressed me most were the chipped edges of the base. They look convincingly three-dimensional to me but go close enough and you’ll see that they’re freely painted in blobs of colour.

Parasol

I DIDN’T get as far as I’d hope with identifying fungi last month. Looking back through my sketchbook I found this drawing, made from a photograph taken on a walk around Newmillerdam. As I’ve mentioned in my notes, it was growing not far from the track in mixed woodland which included larch.

I guess that it’s a relative of the Parasol, although this lacks the scales on the stem and the cap has turned concave; the Parasol mushroom, Macrolepiota procera, would be convex, with a boss in the middle but like this fungus, it has a ring around the stem and dark, flattened scales.

Fireside Sketch

THE LANDSCAPE is looking increasingly wintry so we appreciate the wood-burning stove when we take my mum out for a coffee at the new garden centre at Grange Moor.

We’ve had a period of zooming around on errands so there’s been little in my sketchbooks recently but I always tell myself that a table of magazines or leaflets in a waiting room, or quick sketch of a mug of coffee is better than nothing!

However with various loose ends tied up I’m really feeling the need to get down to some solid drawing.

These are all from my ‘urban’ sketchbook, the one I take on errands around town. They’re mainly drawn with my Lamy Safari pen except for the wood-burning stove which I wanted to add watercolour to, so I went for an ArtPen filled with Noodler’s ink.

Oakwell Hall Country Park

THE NATURE TRAIL at Oakwell Hall Country Park starts in the picnic area; ‘Blackthorn attracts Bullfinches in winter which eat the nutritious buds . . . ‘

I smiled and thought wouldn’t it be great if birds turned up on cue but the first bird that I saw as I left the car park and entered the Picnic Area was a Bullfinch flying off towards the hedge opposite. I came across a group of three later on the trail.

From the viewpoint on the nature trail.

The trail sketches in a historical background to the park. Once it’s been explained to you, you can see the evidence of one wood having been cut for firewood at the end of the Second World War and another wood having been planted after the closure of  Gomersal Colliery.

The multiple stems of this sessile oak, each 60 or 70 years old, are a clue that it was coppiced – cut back to the stump – in the middle of the last century.

The trail also helped me identify the plant that I’d drawn by the little stream in what had been a railway cutting. There are no flowers at the moment but the trail illustrates Brooklime, a plant that I’m not very familiar with.

I think this is Broad Buckler Fern, growing in the shady, damp woodland of the old railway cutting.

By coincidence they also illustrate Comma Butterfly which I was surprised to see, very briefly, flitting through a patch of sunlight at the woodland edge where an iron aqueduct carries a stream across the railway cutting.

The drier soils of the northern part of the wood ‘have favoured the development of a Brich wood’ the trail guide tells us, ‘though native Sessile Oak is slowly spreading into this area.’

There’s still fungus about, for instance in the wood on the site of the old colliery I found a group of this fungus with a pale grey cap, a cap which becomes concave as the fungus grows. I haven’t attempted to identify it.

They were growing in swathes in mixed woodland.

Finally, stepping out of the woodland for a change, here’s cranesbill that was growing on open, drier ground along the edge of the old railway. It grew to about 2 feet, 60 centimetres, with flowers up to an inch and a half, 4cm across.

Link: Oakwell Hall nature trail PDF version; printed version available in the Visitor Centre.

Sweet Chestnut

WHEN I collected this Sweet Chestnut at Newmillerdam a few weeks ago, the spiky case was still green and the nuts, barely ripe, were just starting to peep out as the fruit started to split.

The little necks sticking up from each nut are the remains of the stigma and style – the female parts of the Sweet Chestnut flower. The male part of the flower, a small bobbly ‘catkin’ usually gests detached from the ripening fruit.

Marginal Workings Out

Doodle on a paper bag, made when I was roughing out the lettering and cartoons for a Halloween menu board.
My sister reading the ‘Fink’s Donuts’ edition of Mad magazine, Dourdogne, 1965.

CONSIDERING THAT as a teenager I only ever bought two or three copies of Mad magazine, I feel that it made a big impression on me.

The American artwork was sharper than the gentler English cartoons of Punch. Besides, Mad was aimed at my age group so instead of the witty verbiage that filled the spaces between the cartoons – which for me were the main event in Punch – there were comic strip satires of television and movies; spoof advertisements, magazine articles and books and regular strips such as Spy v. Spy.

The sheer exuberance of the graphic design made me eager to try out some of the formats for myself. That sense that publications can be fun, that they don’t have to be subtle and worthy, has stayed with me despite the training that I had in graphic design, which probably accounts for the wayward nature of my publications to this day.

Looking out the photograph of my sister in my Summer Holiday 1965 journal I can see an example where I’ve squeezed a cartoon into the margin; what Mad magazine called a Marginal Working Out. An example I remember, drawn across the top of a page on an entirely unrelated article in Mad, was a guitarist looking out at a row of crows sitting on telephone wires and playing along as if he was reading them as notes on a stave. Clever.

My mini cartoon of the car encountering continental calamities isn’t so original; it’s my version of a cartoon that I’d seen in Punch, I imagine that it was a Thelwell, but other cartoonists drew this kind of subject.

Trying to come up with a suitable character for a sign I was hand-lettering. Cow number one was my favourite.

I’m having a rainy day in the studio, clearing my desk, so, before I threw out some scrap paper and a couple of paper bags I thought I’d scan these marginal workings out, drawn when I was working out ideas for various jobs that I’ve been doing.

I don’t think ‘Reg’ in the doodle on the left related to anything at all. He really is just a doodle.

Life is Sweets

Yesterday I watched Life is Sweets, Nigel Slater’s evocation of childhood as remembered through the sweets and chocolate bars he ate at the time. It really was a big thing for him. I remember sweets of course but the memories that make the biggest impression on me, that can bring back a whole little episode in my life are particular books, comics or magazines.

Nigel Slater remembers tastes and textures, I remember things like the feel and smell of the paper in Mad magazine and the crispness of the line work and the half tone printing, the accuracy of the caricatures and so on. I guess that’s why Nigel became a food writer and I became an illustrator.

First Frosts

THERE ARE more bare trees and those that are still holding onto their leaves are turning from green to ochre. The first overnight frosts seem to have put a check on the variety of fungi that appeared in October.

Usually Canada Geese are the most conspicuous birds on the lake but today they’re gone. Perhaps it was last night’s frost that persuaded them to head elsewhere. Three red-headed Goosanders (females or juveniles) are swimming near the boathouse, one dipping its head below water, perhaps looking for a small fish. Black-headed Gulls perch in dead trees by the shore.

Figurettes

I’M THINKING about setting the scene in my latest comic strip course exercise, putting figures, in this case a mountaineering version of my Jack and Jill characters, into a panel which has a foreground, middle ground and background.

There’s also a section in this chapter in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures which offers advice on devising figures. I’ve long used what the authors Abel and Madden refer to as figurettes to set a scene, drawing rough figures, similar to a wooden lay figure, consisting of ovals and sausage-shapes to work out action poses.

They ask you to try the technique on figures standing, walking . . .

. . . running and kneeling.

Then to trace figures from a book or magazine using the same ovals and sausage-shapes (the light pencil lines in my sketches, left) then, using these ‘figurettes’ as a basis, to draw a different character in the same pose (dark lines).

As I was saying the other day, this way of a constructing a drawing is the opposite of the process that I’m familiar with in my sketchbook work where careful observation of a figure, animal or building should result in the underlying structure looking convincing.

North America

ON OUR walk around Langsett Reservoir on Monday we took a break at the ruined farm marked on the map as North America. Remote farms and fields were sometimes named after remote locations. Red Grouse were calling on the moor, joining each other on some crest amongst the heather and bilberry before hurtling off elsewhere.

Several flocks of thrushes, fieldfares we think, flew over, all heading west, up the valley of the Little Don.

These days we can’t get my mum to such isolated spots but at least Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, where we headed for coffee and scones, overlooks a broad curve of the Calder Valley, the tops of the Pennines dissolving into the mist in the background. Not the ideal subject for pen and ink but I don’t pack my watercolours in my ‘urban’ art bag.

In this bag for errands around town I keep a variety of pen, most of which, I now realise, need refilling. As my favourite Lamy Safari needs refill I started drawing Tilly at the bookshop in ArtPen but then, when the ink ran out, switched to Pentel BrushPen.